President Obama hosted the first ever US-based summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this week, but the event's billing as his foreign policy legacy was overshadowed by China's deployment of missiles in the hotly disputed South China Sea.
O n US soil for the first time, the leaders of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a two-day summit with President Barack Obama on February 15-16, underscoring their prominent position in the Asia-Pacific's political economy. The 10 members of ASEAN are: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The gathering was a point of personal pride for Mr. Obama, his aides said, because his 2009 'pivot' away from the quagmires of Afghanistan and the Middle East and toward the West Pacific is the one foreign policy legacy the US president will be able to point to with a measure of pride, after he exits the White House at the end of the year. “We’ve done a lot of work with ASEAN over the last seven years, and we want to close strong,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Washington on February 11.
The meeting was held at the sprawling Sunnylands estate in the middle of the California desert, away from the distractions of Washington DC, where serious but candid discussions could be undertaken without observance of the usual protocols. It is the same place Mr. Obama got to know one of his biggest rivals of the global stage, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in June 2013.
It is between those opposing poles that ASEAN has found itself sandwiched, particularly since the rise of President Xi and his policy of asserting China's sweeping claims to most of the South China Sea, backed up by the rapid development of an ocean-going navy fleet.
Four ASEAN members - Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam - are in dispute with Beijing over its South China Sea claims; the Philippines and Vietnam have been physically harassed. Two others, Cambodia and Indonesia, are also affected but have chosen not to press their claims because they would rather not become diplomatic opponents of China.
That geopolitical equation is complicated further by the 10 small Southeast Asian nations’ geographical proximity to China, which has land borders with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, Mr. Obama was alert to that context and since 2009, he has devoted considerable time and energy to building relations with ASEAN, going out of his way to make presidential visits to countries largely ignored by the White House since the end of the Vietnam War. "The US-ASEAN Summit is a logical consequence of US strategic rebalancing towards Asia," David Arase, political scientist at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, told Deutsche Welle (DW). "It acknowledges the pivotal role that ASEAN plays in shaping the future of Asia."
The highlight was the ASEAN-US summit held in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, last November, where Mr. Obama succeeded in persuading the 10 member states to form a strategic partnership with the US on economic and security issues.
They also took a united diplomatic position against the use of intimidation and force to resolve the South China Sea dispute, and against any attempt to deny freedom of maritime navigation and aircraft over-flights. “Our view is, the more ASEAN is able to speak with one voice on this, the better. That, you know, if this is seen as only an issue of concern to the claimants, or this is seen as even different claimants having different views on how this should be addressed, beyond simply their territorial claim, we think makes it harder to resolve the issue in the region,” Mr. Rhodes said.
The urgency of the situation was underlined on Tuesday when officials in Taiwan and the US reported Beijing had deployed surface-to-air missiles on a South China Sea island. The disclosure coincided with the release of the ASEAN-US summit joint statement, which expressed a shared commitment to “peaceful resolution of disputes... without resorting to the threat or use of force" and "non-militarisation and self-restraint".
The news also prompted a call from President Obama, at a press conference at the conclusion of the Sunnybrook summit, for "tangible steps" to lower tensions in the hotly disputed maritime area.
He did not, however, acknowledge the circumstances leading to the Chinese deployment of two batteries of eight HQ-9 missile launchers and a radar system on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Island chain disputed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam: the Chinese missile deployment followed a "freedom of navigation" patrol on January 30 by a US Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Curtis Wilbur, to within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, also part of the Paracels. The island chain is close to China and more firmly under its control than the Spratly Archipelago.
China expressed its position through the state Xinhua News Agency, as it does when it wants to be candid without formally adopting a political stance. "Underneath the claim of 'freedom of navigation' is Washington's true motive that seeks unchallenged operation of US warships around the world," wrote Xinhua commentator Luo Jun. "Bullying actions as such will not only undermine strategic mutual trust between Beijing and Washington and infuriate the Chinese people, but also serve no good to US national interest."
ASEAN has another geographical distinction: it is home to the Malacca Straits, the sole commercial shipping highway between Asia and Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The Asia-Europe container-borne maritime trade is the busiest and most valuable inter-regional trade in the world; similarly, more crude oil flows between the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific than to anywhere else, which is precisely why the Persian Gulf holds such geostrategic value.
Add to that the massive cross-Pacific trades - in particular those of China, Japan and the US, the world's three biggest economies - and the cash value of Asia-Pacific's waterways adds up to a staggering $5 trillion annually, according to the White House.
The ASEAN-US summit at Sunnybrook followed two significant acts of economic diplomacy: the inauguration of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015 and the signing of the Obama-conceived Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement between 12 countries, including four ASEAN members, which pointedly excluded China.
The US is ASEAN's third largest trading partner, with two-way trade more than quadrupling from 2006 levels to $241.7 billion in 2013. ASEAN is also the fourth-largest market for US exports and attracted $226 billion in US investments up to the end of 2015.
Speaking to DW ahead of the Sunnybrook summit, Linda Lim, professor of strategy at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, said: "It will serve to highlight the US' close ties with ASEAN, a region which otherwise tends to be overshadowed by the focus on China - even though US companies have invested more in the 10 ASEAN countries than in China and Japan combined."
To further those material ends, President Obama launched a new effort at the Sunnybrook summit to help all ASEAN members understand the key elements and reforms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so that those not already onboard could eventually join it.
Nonetheless, China has overtaken Japan since 2009 as ASEAN's biggest trading partner, with trade doubling to $360 billion by 2014; in fact, China is the biggest trading partner of every Asia-Pacific nation. The ASEAN market currently conducts $2.2 trillion in annual trade.
President Xi is pressing home that advantage through massive infrastructure investments in Southeast Asia under President Xi's 62-country One Belt, One Road initiative, and has made $100 billion in credit available through the newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China's equivalent of the US-backed World Bank and the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.
"The US will need to be realistic. In building closer ties to Southeast Asia, the goal isn’t to lessen China's influence per se," Bloomberg commentator David Shipley wrote on February 14, the opening day of the Sunnybrook summit. "ASEAN members have every reason to take advantage of the mainland's markets and investment."
ASEAN members, therefore, are in a position to both benefit from and suffer from the competition for political and economic influence between China and the US.
"For countries that are at the frontline of confronting China in the South China Sea - like the Philippines and Vietnam - they want to have closer ties with the US in order to balance out the perceived threats coming out of Beijing,” Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, told Channel NewsAsia, a Singapore-based broadcaster. “Countries like Myanmar - as they transit from authoritarian rule to democracy - also want to balance out the overly large Chinese economic influence with an increased presence of American and Western business interests."
Joining Myanmar in that uncomfortable category are Cambodia and Laos, both of which rejected the urgings of visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry in January to join countries diplomatically confronting China over its South China Sea expansionism.
Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, on the other hand, have been able to maintain a strategic autonomy that has accorded them the best of both worlds. For example, Indonesia chose China over US ally Japan for a $5 billion high-speed rail link between the cities of Bandung and Jakarta, the capital, and is also a member of the TPP, as is Singapore; Thailand has also expressed interest. But Indonesia has also pointedly declined to join Chinese military drills in the South China Sea, while maintaining a distance from the territorial dispute which also affects its sovereignty.
Analysts said China's missile deployment in the Paracel Islands is thus more akin to a chessboard move than a dangerous military escalation. “The current deployment of missiles is a likely response to perceived increased US activity. But, a naval confrontation between China and the US remains highly unlikely. China’s approach to the disputed islands continues to be the gradual militarisation of the territory under its control, and the creation of a situation of domain awareness and area denial for other regional claimants,” Omar Hamid, head of Asia Analysis for IHS Country Risk, told The World Weekly.
Maintaining peace in and around Southeast Asia, ultimately, rests in the hands of Beijing and Washington, Mr. Luo commented for Xinhua. "Only through real commitment of cultivating a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with sound strategic trust between each other, can the US and China, and the Asia-Pacific region at large, enjoy long-term peace and prosperity."